Hear the voice of a thief. That of Alexander Graham Bell.

Alexander G. Bell, a successful thief. He left the real inventor of the telephone, Antonio Meucci, to die in extreme poverty.
Alexander G. Bell, a successful thief. He left the real inventor of the telephone, Antonio Meucci, die in extreme poverty.

The real inventor of the telephone was Antonio Santi Giuseppe Meucci (Florence 1808 – New York 1889)

Meucci filed a Patent Caveat in 1871 (5 years before Bell) because he had not sufficient money to pay for a full patent. His notebooks went missing, sold for a few dollars by his wife while he was sick, and then was demonstrated beyond doubt that they ended up in the hands of a friend of Alexander Bell and he had access to them. Here we have not a case of two people coming up with the same idea at the same time, but rather the stealing of a brilliant idea.  There was a famous trial but by then Bell, a skilled but ungrateful businessman had  already set up a company with branches all over the world. The judge, contrary to common expectations, and against evidence ruled in favour of the Scottish turned-Canadian millionare without granting a compensation to the poor Italian immigrant.

Antonio Meucci, Inventor and Patriot.
Antonio Meucci, Inventor and Patriot.

There was a ruling by the US Congress in 2002 correcting that sentence. For those who thinks that I am boasting this out of pure chauvinism here is an article published by the Guardian on 22 June 2002, written by Rory Carroll:

Historians and Italian-Americans won their battle to persuade Washington to recognise a little-known mechanical genius, Antonio Meucci, as a father of modern communications, 113 years after his death.

The vote by the House of Representatives prompted joyous claims in Meucci’s homeland that finally Bell had been outed as a perfidious Scot who found fortune and fame by stealing another man’s work.

Calling the Italian’s career extraordinary and tragic, the resolution said his “teletrofono”, demonstrated in New York in 1860, made him the inventor of the telephone in the place of Bell, who had access to Meucci’s materials and who took out a patent 16 years later.

“It is the sense of the House of Representatives that the life and achievements of Antonio Meucci should be recognised, and his work in the invention of the telephone should be acknowledged,” the resolution stated.

Bell’s immortalisation in books and films has rankled with generations of Italians who know Meucci’s story. Born in 1808, he studied design and mechanical engineering at the Academy of Fine Arts in Florence, and as a stage technician at the city’s Teatro della Pergola developed a primitive system to help colleagues communicate.

In the 1830s he moved to Cuba and, while working on methods to treat illnesses with electric shocks, found that sounds could travel by electrical impulses through copper wire. Sensing potential, he moved to Staten Island, near New York City, in 1850 to develop the technology.

When Meucci’s wife, Ester, became paralysed he rigged a system to link her bedroom with his neighbouring workshop and in 1860 held a public demonstration which was reported in New York’s Italian-language press.

In between giving shelter to political exiles, Meucci struggled to find financial backing, failed to master English and was severely burned in an accident aboard a steamship.

Forced to make new prototype telephones after Ester sold his machines for $6 to a secondhand shop, his models became more sophisticated. An inductor formed around an iron core in the shape of a cylinder was a technique so sophisticated that it was used decades later for long-distance connections.

Meucci could not afford the $250 needed for a definitive patent for his “talking telegraph” so in 1871 filed a one-year renewable notice of an impending patent. Three years later he could not even afford the $10 to renew it.

He sent a model and technical details to the Western Union telegraph company but failed to win a meeting with executives. When he asked for his materials to be returned, in 1874, he was told they had been lost. Two years later Bell, who shared a laboratory with Meucci, filed a patent for a telephone, became a celebrity and made a lucrative deal with Western Union.

Meucci sued and was nearing victory – the supreme court agreed to hear the case and fraud charges were initiated against Bell – when the Florentine died in 1889. The legal action died with him.

 

 

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